Feeling a bit like you’ve just got too much going on at once? Too much pressure? Too many people making demands on your time or your peace of mind? And feeling like you just can’t think straight, get perspective, work out where to start?
And possibly, as a result of this feeling, saying and doing things that ‘aren’t you’. Maybe you’re normally relatively calm and organised, but at times you just feel like all this stress is ‘doing your head in’.
Well, maybe it’s not just about you. Maybe you’re not ‘losing it’, going crazy or whatever. In fact this is just what our brains do when we end up in the ‘stress response’ (also often known as the fight-flight response).
I personally find it quite reassuring to understand what happens when our brains flick into these particular unhelpful patterns when we are stressed. Partly I find it helpful because I can remind myself I’m not going crazy, this is exactly how my brain is designed to operate under stress. And that thought reminds me that focussing on actions that will help my physiology shift from ‘stressed out / freaking out’ to ‘relaxed and focussed’ is the most useful thing to do. But I’m running ahead … first, here are some ideas that help to explain in simple terms why our minds do what they do when we are stressed.
We’re not as ‘modern’ as we think
In the same way that it is a natural reflex for our bodies to flick into ‘fight-flight’ physiology any time we perceive we are facing a threat (whether that is a real physical threat or a perceived threat, perhaps something that has us feel that our security or wellbeing is under threat) our mind can flick automatically into a ‘fight-flight’ style of thinking. The ‘fight-flight’ reflex is a very primitive reflex which we have in common with even the most ancient animals.
Unfortunately our minds and bodies are not great at telling the difference between real, physical threats and everyday worries or anxieties. So most of us flick into the fight-flight response without even knowing we are doing it. We are then caught in a physiology that would equip us well for a brawl, or to survive in a dangerous world, as if we were surrounded by sabre-tooth tigers.
The ‘logical’ brain goes off-line and ‘emotion brain’ jumps into the driver’s seat
Ironically, the more ‘modern’ or highly evolved, rational, problem-solving part of our brain (the neo-cortex) is less activated when we switch into the fight-flight response, and instead the more ancient ‘emotion brain’ (limbic system) takes over the ‘driver’s seat’. So when we are facing stressors and most need our problem-solving ability, we have least access to it if the ‘fight-flight’ response has been activated. And you may have noticed evidence that the ‘emotion brain’ is more activated in times of greater stress – you may find yourself feeling more emotional than usual, perhaps more prone to tearfulness or more ‘short-fused’ than you would normally be, and you may find that you take things more personally than usual.
In addition, the limbic system responds in a very fast, very ‘black or white’, or ‘all or nothing’ way. You might find that when you are feeling particularly stressed that you find yourself saying things to yourself like “This is a disaster” (as opposed to “This is quite a big setback”), or using ‘all or nothing language’ such as “I will never be able to …”, or “They always do this to me”.
And when I say that we see things as very ‘black or white’ I guess I’m really saying we see things as very black – we are not in a state to notice what is going well or the many good things in our lives. We are in a negative mind-set because of the fight-flight response. This leads to us to a bit of a ‘siege mentality’ – we can feel that we are surrounded by people who are mean and/or stupid.
Looking out for danger
When we are in ‘stress physiology’ we become ‘hypervigilant – we are on the look-out for what is wrong or what could go wrong. This makes perfect sense given that your body and mind are acting as if you are living in a very dangerous world. In a genuinely dangerous world, we need to be on the look-out for danger. But our tendency to flick into this stress physiology, and the hypervigilance that goes with it when faced with every-day ongoing stress, is very unhelpful.
As you can see, we are hard-wired to think negatively when we are caught in the fight-flight response. Another way of describing ‘hypervigilance would be to say that we are in a hyper ‘judging’ mode – we are filtering for whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (and mostly when we are in the ‘stress’ physiology we are only able to see the ‘bad’) and we are paying particular attention to the size of the gap between how we perceive things to be and how we perceive they ‘should’ be or we wish they would be.
The ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ Physiology
This is the opposite to the ‘fight-flight’ physiology. When we are relaxed, we much more easily and automatically notice the good things in our lives. In this physiology we don’t have to give ourselves a ‘pep talk’ to think positively, we are naturally aware of the good things in our lives. We are also much more compassionate, and much less likely to judge – either others or ourselves. In this physiology we also have full access to our pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that can problem-solve, be rational, be creative, and get perspective on life. Our concentration is better and our memory works better. All-in-all this physiology has a lot going for it!
Adopting a ‘bottom up’ approach
There is growing acceptance within psychology today that we can’t easily ‘think’ or ‘work’ our way out of this dynamic. For many people trying to be ‘rational’ in our thinking when we are caught in stress and anxiety, and trying to be ‘positive’ doesn’t work when we are trying to get out of this nasty cycle. In fact, we can end up feeling worse because we think we ‘should’ be able to ‘just be rational’ or ‘just be positive’ and try as we might, this ability eludes us. And this leads to more self-judgment and more of that nasty vicious cycle.
Instead of trying harder to think our way out of this physiology, a more effective approach is to ‘use our bodies to change our minds’. It is helpful to recognise that we are in the stress physiology, remind ourselves that we are hard-wired to think in this negative way when we are in the ‘stress’ physiology, and then choose to take action to change our physiology. So give yourself a break. Trying to stop yourself thinking in this negative way when you are in the ‘stress’ physiology is like trying to rake water up hill. Once we take action which moves us into a more ‘relaxed and focussed’ physiology, then we can ‘go upstairs’ and change the way we are thinking.
‘Bridges’ into the ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ physiology
There are many ‘bridges’ that help us to move from ‘stressed brain’ to ‘relaxed and focused brain’. Physical exercise is really helpful, as is spending time with people who care about us or whose company helps to uplift us. Spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation, or being in nature can also be very helpful, as can music, art or other creative activities. Play is very potent also.
But perhaps the most direct and powerful is diaphragmatic breathing.
Learning to gain greater control over your physiology through diaphragmatic breathing will pay dividends. Imagine how much more calm, enjoyable and productive life would be if you could easily access the ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ physiology, where your brain is more efficient and you can easily get things into perspective. So if you haven’t already, do explore the simple but powerful process of diaphragmatic breathing. And make sure you use it as often as you need it to, to help you keep things in perspective and to prevent you from visiting that ‘it’s doing my head in’ territory that detracts so significantly from our quality of life.
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear from you): I’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences: Please add your comment/s below.
Can you relate to any of this – have you noticed some of these thought patterns when you’ve been stressed. And have you been annoyed with yourself for being ‘so negative’ or ‘so grumpy’ but not been able to get out of that frame of mind. Or maybe you’ve had friends who’ve given you that oh so helpful (not) advice ‘Don’t be so negative’. I’d love to hear about your experiences of this ‘stress dynamic’.
Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.